In biblical thought, God's vengeance is an expression of his holiness. Rendering vengeance to his adversaries is essentially a response to evil. Vengeance is punishment in retribution for injury and so is often linked with the wrath of God (Isa. 59.17; 63.4; Nah. 1.2). Vengeance was understood as God's way of redressing wrongs, and the word seldom has a connotation of vindictiveness. Cries to Yahweh for vengeance (Jer. 11.20; 15.15; 20.12; 50.15; Ps. 94.1–3) are cries for healing and redemption—even though a restoration may call for retributive justice. God's vengeance is balanced by his mercy (Ps. 103.10). Vengeance, then, is very much a part of God's character and does not contradict his love.

God's vengeance is directed at those who oppose him and who refuse to acknowledge his commands. These include his enemies (Deut. 32.41, 43; Nah. 1.2), who are often other nations (Ps. 149.7; Mic. 5.15), or a single nation that has done evil (Ezek. 25.14, 17), especially toward Israel, God's people (Deut. 32.35, 36). When, however, Israel becomes unfaithful to Yahweh and breaks covenant, God's vengeance exacts punishment also on Israel (Lev. 26.25; Isa. 1.24; Jer. 5.9,12). In the absence of justice in the land, God puts on his “garments of vengeance” (Isa. 59.17), ready to punish Israel, ready to display his wrath. Vengeance, then, is a sign of God's working in history, fulfilling his purposes. Although vengeance belongs to him alone (Deut. 32.35; Rom. 12.19; Heb. 10.30), God can authorize people to act as agents of his vengeance (Num. 31.2–3; 2 Kings 9.7; Ezek. 25.14).

Since wrongs are not always righted in the present and God's vengeance is delayed because of his patience, later prophets look forward to a “day of vengeance” in the future—an apocalyptic day that will mark the beginning of a new age (Isa. 34.8; 35.4; Jer. 46.10; see Day of the Lord).

Although the Hebrew Bible has little to say about life after death (see Afterlife and Immortality), the hope that sin will be punished and faithfulness be rewarded in the life to come is stated in Daniel 12.2, 3. In the New Testament divine vengeance is closely tied to the day of judgment at the end of the age, when Christ will return in glory (see Second Coming of Christ). For the wicked he appears “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance” (2 Thess. 1.8; Jude 7), but innocent sufferers who wonder why God does not act on their behalf (Rev. 6.10) have the assurance that in the end he will vindicate his servants (Rev. 19.2).

Vengeance as a principle of law was well established in ancient Israel: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exod. 21.23–24; cf. Deut. 19.21); this is known as the lex talionis (the law of equivalent retribution). On its face it seems brutal, but it was an advance in legal thinking. It shut the door to unlimited revenge and kept the punishment from exceeding the crime. It established the principle of equity in punishment and allowed for no favoritism. The law functioned under the jurisdiction of judges (Exod. 21.22; Deut. 19.17–18).

The New Testament upholds the right of the governing authorities to avenge wrongs, acting as God's servants for the well‐being of the community (Rom. 13.4; 1 Pet. 2.14). As in ancient Israel, personal vengeance was forbidden (Lev. 19.18; Rom. 12.19); indeed, doing an enemy good was considered to be a part of wisdom (Prov. 25.21; Rom. 12.20). Jesus not only taught nonretaliation, exhorting his followers to suffer loss rather than resort to personal vindictiveness (Matt. 5.38–48 par.), but he also modeled it (1 Pet. 2.23).

See also Avenger of Blood


David Ewert